Ask the average American to list the five most influential U.S. presidents of the 20th century and a handful of names will be quickly mentioned. Ask the same person to name the five most influential first ladies of the 20th century and you’ll likely be met with silence. That’s not surprising, because for much of American history, first ladies have been in the background as their husbands ran the country.
Yet beginning with Eleanor Roosevelt and continuing into the latter half of the century, first ladies began taking a more active role in promoting social and charitable causes. That made compiling this list a challenge in choosing the first ladies whose influence has had a lasting impact on our society. For example, Lady Bird Johnson was left off the list although she inspired highway beautification efforts. Hillary Clinton would have made the top five save for the fact her legacy is still evolving.
5. Jacqueline Kennedy
Widely popular during her years as First Lady (1961-1963) and really until her death in 1994, Jackie Kennedy’s legacy is hard to quantify. A private person and wary of the public after her husband’s assassination, she was not political nor did she become publicly active in many of the ongoing causes of the 1960s. But she had a profound effect on American society.
For lack of a better description, Kennedy brought some class to the White House. Youthful, attractive, and dignified, Kennedy was the exact opposite of most first ladies prior to her arrival. Her love of the arts was evident as she sought to revitalize the White House and make it a showcase to foreign dignitaries. Her fashion sense was impeccable and influenced fashion for millions of American women. Her popularity among foreign leaders was invaluable as she accompanied her husband on many diplomatic trips. And her quiet dignity during tragedy galvanized a nation.
4. Nancy Reagan
First lady from 1981 to 1989, Nancy Reagan will forever be remembered for her work in the war on drugs and raising national awareness of Alzheimer’s. Despite questionable results, Mrs. Reagan spearheaded the “Just Say No” program in 1982 to raise awareness of the effects of drug use and abuse, tirelessly crisscrossing the nation to speak out against drugs. In 1988 she became the first first lady to address the General Assembly of the United Nations on the need for stronger drug-trafficking laws. In 1989 she founded the Nancy Reagan Foundation to further the research on the dangers of drugs.
Following her husband’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, she founded the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute in Chicago where intensive research is still done to find a cure for that deadly disease. Through her efforts public awareness was raised concerning Alzheimer’s, and in 2002 she was presented with the President’s Medal of Freedom for her contributions to society.
3. Betty Ford
Betty Ford will best be remembered for her efforts in seeking equality for women, closely followed by her role in raising awareness of breast cancer and substance abuse. Following the tumultuous years of the Nixon Administration, Gerald and Betty Ford brought stability and public confidence back to the office of the presidency, in itself a formidable accomplishment. Following her own mastectomy in 1974, Mrs. Ford made countless public appearances to help further breast cancer research, urging women to be proactive in the diagnosis of that deadly disease.
Ford was certainly no shrinking violet during her three years in the White House. An outspoken woman, she could be counted on to comment loudly and often about issues that concerned her. Her favorite issue was equal rights for women, but she was also a strong advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment, pro-choice, feminism, and equal pay for women.
Following an intervention by her family, Ford underwent treatment for drug and alcohol abuse and eventually established the Betty Ford Center to help combat substance abuse. As with other issues she believed in, she spoke openly about her own struggle with drugs and alcohol, thus giving a face to a prevalent but rarely spoken about illness in America. In 1991 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom; in 1999 the Congressional Gold Medal; and in 2003 the Woodrow Wilson Award for her public service.
2. Rosalynn Carter
Rosalynn Carter served as first lady of our nation from 1977-1981 and early on it became apparent that her favorite cause was mental health and related research. An unassuming woman of grace and dignity, she served as chairman for the President’s Commission on Mental Health as well as chairman for the Carter Center Mental Health Task Force. In addition she was a Board Member Emeritus for the National Mental Health Association and started the Rosalynn Carter Institute for Caregiving, an organization focused on educating caregivers and providing support for them.
Also during her White House years she chaired the Friendship Force International, an organization created to help refugees in Cambodia and Laos following the Vietnam War. In addition, she served as President of Every Child By Two, an organization created to increase childhood immunization in the United States, and was a board member for Habitat for Humanity. Carter was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2002 and she continues today in her tireless efforts.
1. Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt mirrored her husband in her vocal belief that America would not only recover from the Great Depression but would emerge stronger than before. A woman of considerable wealth, she became the foundation of hope for the poor and outcasts in the United States. She lobbied tirelessly for civil rights when that issue was very unpopular. Speaking on radio or in person, she was quick to offer words of encouragement. “It’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,” she said, as well as “What could we accomplish if we knew we could not fail?” And Americans believed her during a time when they believed very little else.
She was a strong supporter of Freedom House, advocating democracy and human rights; she served as a United Nations delegate from 1945-1962; and she was Chairman of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Mrs. Roosevelt embodied all that the position of first lady could and should be.